They Trip Horses, Don’t They?

Creature discomfort in the movies

Eadweard Muybridge

It started with a horse. In order to conduct his photographic experiment to prove once and for all that a racehorse’s four hooves lifted off the ground at the same time, photographer Eadweard Muybridge needed not only a way to trigger the camera shutters at the right time, but he also needed lots of light to expose the wet plates properly. Edward Ball, in his new book, The Inventor and the Tycoon, says Occident was the unlucky mammal chosen the day Muybridge gathered up all the bed sheets he could find and lined the grounds to increase the natural brightness. No horses died (valuable racehorses all) in the making of Muybridge’s images, but the billowing—and no doubt stumble-inducing—sheets terrified Occident. Ball also says that all the horses balked at Muybridge’s first shutter-trigger mechanism, silk thread stretched across the race track—they didn’t like being close-lined.

Horses, of course, have been in our motion pictures ever since. Risking life and limb, and often their dignity, they performed jaw-dropping stunts in myriad westerns, appeared merely as props, background, or color, as sidekicks to heroic lead characters, and even sometimes as the main characters. A centuries-old conveyance, worker, sport, companion, and spectacle, the horse was still integral to daily life at time cinema was invented, not yet completely usurped by the mechanical. The Lumières filmed many horses on their worldwide voyages with their hand-cranked cameras, including horse-drawn buggies in the background at New York’s Union Square (New York: Broadway at Union Square) and some shirtless dragoons riding bareback across a river in eastern France (Dragoons Crossing the Saône, 1896).

Produced by Thomas Edison—who had rebuffed Muybridge’s attempts to collaborate—1894’s Bucking Broncho showed real-life cowboy Lee Martin of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show riding Sunfish in a corral built especially outside the glass studio, the Black Maria being too small for such a production. According to early western scholar Scott Simmon, the man standing on the fence repeatedly firing his gun into the tightly framed corral is another authentic cowboy, Frank Hammit, originally chosen to perform for Edison’s camera with his own horse El Dorado but “deemed it not advisable … as the place was not large enough, the animal being an extraordinarily dangerous one.”

Horses and cowboys left idle by the vanishing West soon found work in the western, with its increasingly thrilling thrills. A Jewish man from Arkansas lied to Edwin S. Porter about his horsemanship to get cast in The Great Train Robbery and the cowboy star (Broncho Billy Anderson) and the stunt rider were born. Stunt doubles also became common for horses, with the photogenic and valued specimens preserved for interacting with humans and unfortunate rental horses used for dangerous stunts. Attitudes about the animal, its use and care, were holdovers from the Imperial Era, when according to John Berger, “The capturing of the animals was a symbolic representation of the conquest of all distant and exotic lands.”

Fritz and William S. Hart

The horse became a character in Pathé’s 1907 short Le cheval emballe, or The Runaway Horse, in which a trick shot shows the horse running backwards. William S. Hart, an experienced horseman who spent part of his childhood in the Dakotas, found a small red-and-white pinto at Inceville, Fritz, and together they formed a successful duo that was duplicated many times over in the future of movies: a cowboy and his trusted steed. In her book, Hollywood Hoofbeats, Petrine Mitchum says that Fritz’s unique markings meant it could not be doubled, but it was well trained to fall on cue at a time when many horses were tripped to achieve the desire effect. (The malevolent Running W rig has cuffs that are strapped to a horses hooves, which are then connected to a stake buried deep in the ground.) Hart, who loved Fritz (marking the horse’s grave with the words “A Loyal Comrade” and eulogizing it in the prologue of his own last film, 1938’s Tumbleweeds) never risked its hide for stunts. But, the moving picture hero was not above withholding Fritz from films for two years in order to get a raise.

Absent from 15 of Hart’s movies, Fritz finally returns in 1920’s Sand, whose plot is built around the joyful reuniting of horse and rider who then must chase down a thief, dropping straight off the edge of a cliff in the process. According to Mitchum’s book, this stunt was performed in Fritz’s final film, Singer Jim McKee. She goes on to say that a concerned Will Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, questioned Hart about it. When Hart explained that the horse was actually a dummy replica, Hays approved the film. After the film’s release, concerned fans still wrote letters asking after Fritz. Looking again at the drop in Sand, it unfolds exactly as Mitchum describes for the McKee stunt and it’s obvious the “horse” is a prop.

A rescue from a detention center in Colorado, Rex was a powerful black stallion with undeniable onscreen charisma. He had been branded a killer because a young runaway died inexplicably after stealing the horse for his getaway. Discovered by producer Hal Roach’s animal wranglers and billed as “the Wonder Horse,” Rex was the star of its own movies, beginning with King of the Wild Horses (1924) for which it makes a spectacular leap across a ravine [at about minute 23] and later off a cliff into white water [at minute 48]. Doubles stood-in for Rex, not on stunts but for close shots with human actors, as the unpredictable animal often reacted badly to them. The horse makes quite a vision leaping off that cliff, and without any apparent provocation. Mitchum also says that Rex was a bit of a diva, refusing to work when tired and, even once, taking off during a shoot, getting as far as 17 miles away. If that was Rex, and not a stunt double, leaping into the river, the break was well deserved.

Plagued by budget overages as well as quarreling directors and writers, Ben-Hur goes down in history as the most deadly film (American, anyway) for horses. Second unit director B. Reeves Eason, a veteran of westerns and the use of the Running W, shot the chariot race, which claimed the lives of as many as 150 horses (reports vary widely). He reportedly offered a $5,000 cash prize so stunt riders would give their all to the race. The big budget and the big canvas required a stunning racing scene, and despite danger to performing animals, it became the standard by which all others were judged. It took about 15 more years and many more dead horses for some oversight to be established.


Americans weren’t the only ones risking the lives of their equine actors. Sergei Eisenstein, tasked with communicating to a overwhelmingly agrarian populace, often used animals in his films. In Strike, he compared police agents to less agreeable qualities of certain beasts (monkey, fox, etc.), and the final dramatic sequence of his first feature intercuts the brutal repression of the strike with the graphic butchering of a bull. The General Line, about the benefits of Soviet collectivization, was later edited to suit Stalin’s tastes and renamed The Old and the New. His last silent picture, it not only features animals working the farm (some seem quite distressed: the chubby pigs end up dead) but also in service of Eisenstein’s characteristic “intellectual” montage. A sped-up loop of bleating, drooling sheep is intercut with villagers repeating the sign of the cross as they pray for rain.

The most memorable sequence in October, a feature made to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, consists of a beautiful white horse skittering through St. Petersburg’s rebellion-racked streets. A sacrifice in service of Eisenstein’s esoteric symbolism, it is apparently killed offscreen and then reappears as deadweight hanging off the Palace Bridge. Eisenstein described the task of having to kill the steed as only one of many pressing things he needed to do that day. “We only had twenty minutes a day. And in those twenty minutes we had to kill a white horse, as it galloped madly pulling a cab; let drop a golden-haired girl, let the two halves of the bridge open up, let the golden hair stretch across the bottomless abyss, let the dead horse and the cab swing from the raised edge of the bridge, let the cab fall … On screen is takes a lot less than twenty minutes. But to film it takes hours!” With 20 million starving peasants, it was probably hard to get worked up about a few dead animals.

The risks continue, and not just for horses, who also were subjected to the Tilt Chute, shock collars, and pellet guns. Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant on camera to prove his electrical current was superior to a competitor’s. Percy Smith glued a fly’s wings for 1908’s The Acrobatic Fly. Puppet animation pioneer Ladislas Starewicz used beetles (and other dead animals) to such realistic effect in for The Cameraman’s Revenge, one London newspaper wanted to know how he trained the insects so well. Lions were beset by wire meshed floors charged with electricity and alligators had their jaws bound with wire. Just being on a movie set can be hazardous. The well-treated Strongheart (silent German Shepherd star who predates Rin Tin Tin) got accidentally burned on a set light and later died from the wound that grew cancerous.


The very power of these images, however, are what fired the movement to create safer ways to film animals. A 1914 propaganda short showing how London dealt with decrepit horse traffic caused public outrage for showing the disposal method: driving a knife through the horse’s heart and letting it bleed out. The London Times wrote, “… these pictures cannot be shown in public, however vividly they prove the need for some improvements of existing conditions.” The still image of the single horse falling off a cliff to its death in the 1939 film Jesse James was used to galvanize support for the American Humane Society’s supervision of animal actors.

A badly performed stunt can certainly take away enjoyment of a film but knowing the animal you are watching is dying for the film is worse. (Warner Bros. didn’t re-release its wildly popular 1936 film The Charge of the Light Brigade, for which the Running W was once again used, killing an estimated 25 horses.) But if you want to be as sure as you can that a horse on screen wasn’t tripped (Yes, they still trip horses), you can tell by the way they fall: on their sides, usually to the left and always with their heads away from the ground. When they are tripped, they make a spectacular somersault, which mostly likely breaks their legs. It might be cinematic but it shouldn’t be entertainment.

— © Shari Kizirian

Originally published in June 2013 on the editorial pages of Fandor’s website.


Starring … the Stunt Artist

Zoe Bell
Uma Thurman and Zoë Bell on the set of Kill Bill

Before CGI, variously colored screens, and insurance agents changed the game, stars risked life, limb, and future income in daring stunts to dazzle movie audiences. Sure, actors still get hurt. Halle Berry broke her arm on the set of Gothika, George Clooney injured his spine making Syriana, Jackie Chan probably has damaged every part of himself, even once getting a shard of his skull embedded in his brain. But now as the pyrotechnics have gotten louder and the choreography more convoluted filmmakers don’t seem to have to break an actual sweat to achieve verisimilitude. They can simply graft Natalie Portman’s head onto a ballerina’s body. Tricks, or better, illusions, have always been employed to achieve stunts, in the form of mattes and wires and double exposure, but in the celluloid era if you had to leap from one horse to another or jump out of a moving car and wanted it to look real, you merely did it, even if you had to do it very carefully.



Standing Perfectly Still: Steamboat Bill Jr.
Tossed around the vaudeville stage as part of his family’s act since the age of three, Buster Keaton was twice inspected by New York doctors who, he recalled years later, “stripped me to examine for bruises and broken bones.” As an adult he might have gone to the doctor more often but kept on working even after fracturing his vertebra during a stunt in 1924’s Sherlock Jr. He didn’t realize until 14 years later when a physician happened to take an X-ray for an unrelated problem. He only once used a stuntman, for College, when he sensibly contracted an Olympian to pole vault through a window—“I mean, you’ve got to get someone who knows what they are doing.” He even doubled for another actor on a motorcycle stunt in the same perilous Sherlock Jr. Still, today, his fans marvel at the absence of a smile on the Great Stone Face when they should rather wonder how he managed not to grimace considering the strain he endured. In Steamboat Bill Jr. alone he falls off a plank onto an adjoining boat then finally hits the water, lands on his head in a fierce storm, jumps out of a moving car, and clings for dear life on the trunk of an uprooted tree cast about by the wind. In this 1928 masterpiece of comic timing, his gags escalate in complexity and daring. Each sequence is seamless, arduous, and hilarious. It seems almost a shame that for his most renowned stunt he is actually doing nothing—only standing, on the exact right spot. Watch the entire gasp-inducing sequence, from the façade of a house falling around him through another house entirely engulfing him.

Some Carefully Placed Help: The Thief of Bagdad
Like Keaton, Fairbanks was a do-it-yourselfer when it came to stunts. The King of Hollywood employed a double, but instead of having a substitute on camera, he watched him work out the stunt in rehearsal then stepped in when it came time to shoot, mimicking the routine. A health nut (despite his chain-smoking!) and advocate for temperance, Fairbanks exercised everyday at a studio gym and used his celebrity to promote physical fitness. But his ease on screen is not solely because of his practiced athleticism. According to frequent collaborator Allan Dwan who directed three of Fairbanks’s swashbuckling films, A Modern Musketeer, and Robin Hood, and The Iron Mask: “Every set that we built I measured for handholds. They were always there and he would automatically feel for them. If he jumped it was just exactly the distance he could gracefully jump. Never a strain.” More known for its elaborate stunts and special effects — a flying carpet (dangling off an 80-foot crane), a flying horse, and a rope-climbing trick1924’s The Thief of Bagdad also includes a relatively uncomplicated stunt, achieved with the kind of carefully placed help Dwan described. Early on, Fairbanks swipes the magic rope of Jinn and eludes capture by leaping through a series of outsize jars with the aid of some small trampolines. It’s just a few seconds of screen time but astonishes nonetheless. At less than ten minutes in of this two-and-a half-hour movie, Fairbanks’s agile thief is just starting to roll.

Hanging On for Dear Life: The Outlaw and His Wife
Before Hollywood changed his name to Seastrom, Victor Sjöström was already a force in international cinema, impressing the world with affecting and restrained performances and on location shooting that integrated the Swedish countrysides and wilderness as part of the story. Along with the Finnish-born Mauritz Stiller and the rarely cited Georg af Klercker, Sjöström ushered in Sweden’s Golden Age of Cinema, which sadly burned out by the mid-’20s. But before then he had been directing six to seven films a year, acting in many of them. 1918’s The Outlaw and His Wife was produced by the studio that had nurtured these directors’ talents invested further in their ideas, producing films based on Nordic literature and paying for location shoots to take advantage of the striking Nordic landscapes. When Outlaw came out, critics rhapsodized: “Here without a doubt is the most beautiful film in the world,” wrote French filmmaker and critic Louis Delluc. “Victor Sjöström has directed it with a lavishness that transcends all analysis.” That lavishness is the result of painstaking setups and photography and Sjöström, already known for his perfectionism, was such a stickler for authenticity that he did his own stunt work in the leading role. When the fugitive couple take refuge in the mountains of Swedish Lapland, Sjöström’s character finds himself hanging perilously off an unforgivingly high cliff and the actor/director nearly fell to his death. Sjöström recalled in his diary: “… the hook that was holding me had straightened out as a result of rubbing against the cliff edge—and the next instant … yes, I have never been in such mortal danger as I was then.” See a man risk it all for his art.

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S.O.S. Iceberg

Save Our Stunts: S.O.S. Iceberg
German director Arnold Fanck had pioneered extreme location filmmaking with his silents featuring real-life slope-jockey Luis Trenker performing his own ski stunts. Sought out for their combination of adventure, drama, and documentary style shooting in actual mountain ranges, Fanck’s films were an immediate sensation and spawned a subgenre of popular bergfilmes. For his final silent picture, S.O.S. Iceberg—sound was added later but mute it and rely on the subtitles for a more satisfying experience—he chose a different but no less challenging setting, western Greenland’s frozen fjords (in German, a different kind of “berg”) and enlisted explorer Knud Rasmussen and local Inuits to help him. He imported “three airplanes, forty tents, two motorboats, a couple tons of luggage, and two polar bears from the Hamburg zoo” for the production. But he was ultimately unable to film the actors traversing the fjord on actual icebergs as he had wished. The Inuit wisely refused to put their canoes among them, knowing how quickly the unstable formations can capsize anything in their wake. Once, Fanck almost lost a man, hopping from one to another in a trial run. He had to retreat to the Swiss Alps (and later the studio) to get much of the necessary shots. Still, the footage early in the film of mighty glaciers shedding enormous chunks of themselves lend a verisimilitude to the adventure. If you aren’t yet inured to seeing our world melt, the awesome “birth of an iceberg” sequence should thrill as much as it did audiences back then. If that seems humdrum, watch two out of the three airplanes get trashed. German dare-devil and future Luftwaffe test pilot Ernst Udet did all the flying, and the cast includes Nazi poster girl and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, making her final appearance as an actress (and stuntwoman). She smartly came away with innovative S.O.S. camera assistant Hans Ertl, who later shot her Olympia films.

Mabel Normand Wheels Around
“In those days,” writes Michael Sragow in an early chapter of his biography of Hollywood director Victor Fleming, “knowing how to drive a car was as crucial to the makers of outdoor adventures as knowing how to ride a horse.” Fleming, who got his start in the movies fixing Allan Dwan’s complicated car—“one of your tappet valves is stuck,” he said to the director in 1912 after hearing his Mitchell Six pull up—recalls that “few actors knew how to drive and not many cared to attempt it. As a result, those of us who could drive were invariably used to double for the stars in those early thrill scenes when automobiles were in the picture.” That a woman, comedienne Mabel Normand, was at the wheel of a car in 1914 for Mabel at the Wheel was probably a sufficient source of comedy to American audiences of the time. That she was racing for Santa Monica’s Vanderbilt Cup, side-splittingly revolutionary. Though it might not be her (we can’t see her face, the telltale sign) spinning out in the racetrack oil slick, she is clearly seen driving in and out of the pit, cruising around, and, in one sequence, racing another auto. Pause for a moment, too, to reflect on Charles Chaplin as a bumbling villain.

Double Dare, or How to Be Set on Fire and Live to Tell the Story
Women have been performing stunts since the early days of cinema. The serial queen Pearl White rode on horseback to the rescue more often than not without use of a double. Real-life flyer Pancho Barnes enhanced the authenticity of Howard Hughes’s aviation saga, Hell’s Heroes, which cost the lives of three stunt pilots and injured Hughes himself. (You can learn about this unconventional woman first reclaimed from history by Tom Wolfe’s novel Right Stuff in The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club.) Michelle Yeoh has kicked a lot of Hong Kong ass. Still today, however, women stunt performers have a harder time and are much rarer than their male counterparts. Amanda Micheli’s documentary Double Dare profiles two Hollywood stuntwomen, pioneer Jeannie Epper and up-and-comer Zoë Bell, showing us not only the challenges of making it in a sexist profession but also how damned hard it is to do the stunts, whatever the performer’s gender. Watch the first couple seconds of the documentary to see Bell being set on fire as she spins horizontally from a rope on the set of Xena the Warrior Princess to get the idea. Following Bell as she pursues a Hollywood career, Micheli goes behind the scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s martial arts epic Kill Bill and viewers come away with the sensation, perhaps spot on, that, in the finished film, we will watch much more of Bell’s bloodied bride than we will of Uma Thurman’s. The documentary also provides a good primer on the history of the stunt performer in American movies and their fight for recognition.

Herbert Ponting “kinematographing” off the prow of the Terra Nova, December 1910

The Cameraman as Stunt Artist
Sometimes it is the person behind the camera performing the derring-do in order to deliver the gasp-inducing image. The dangers of shooting either fiction or documentary was painfully illustrated earlier this year with the death of camera assistant Sarah Elizabeth Jones on location at a Georgia railroad track. Setting aside any carelessness on the part of the production in this instance, risking life and limb has been the hallmark of shooters since cinema’s inception. Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) was heavily promoted using cameramen Paul Allen and Alexander G. Penrod’s stories about photographing a whaling expedition out of New Bedford. (Sadly, none of the exciting footage made it into the film. One historian speculates it was fogged up once developed. The reshoots in the Caribbean are tame by any standards.) Penrod himself later died shooting B-roll for 1931’s The Viking when that ship exploded among the Labrador ice floes. Among many other imprudent acts, Herbert Ponting tied himself off the bow of the Terra Nova to capture the vessel breaking the mighty Antarctic ice for The Great White Silence, released in 1924. As audiences became accustomed to cinema’s dramatic arcs their demand for greater and greater action led filmmakers and their cameramen to take greater and greater risks. Watch the angle an unnamed cameraman (I assume) gets in 1933’s Around Cape Horn in a Square Rigger. The storm is surging, the hatches all battened down, and no other personnel can be seen on deck. It’s bold, stupid, and, from a viewer’s vantage, well worth it. Still, it makes you grateful for digital technologies that, 80 years later, allowed the Leviathan filmmakers to transfer physical risks to the tiny cameras attached to the ship and its fishermen.


King of the Wild Horses.jpg

A Truly Wondrous Horse: The King of the Wild Horses
I wrote about Rex before in “They Trip Horses, Don’t They,” but he clearly merits another mention here among stars as stunt performers. Cowboys and trick riders are appreciated (at least now) for their performances in the early westerns, but this magnificent black stallion deserves better renown, as his rewards are even more ephemeral than a weekly paycheck. A rescue living at a detention center for boys in Colorado, he was used as a getaway by a runaway who later turned up dead—the horse took all the blame and Rex was marked as a killer. Producer Hal Roach’s animal wranglers discovered him before he was put down, recognized his appeal, and began to promote him as Rex the Wonder Horse. In his first picture, The King of the Wild Horses (1924), he proves himself worthy of the gamble, making a spectacular leap across a ravine with what appears to be zero prompting (and certainly no trampoline!). Maybe this temperamental animal responded to offscreen direction. Or maybe he just loved to jump. But whatever. He simply leapt. And far. Rex did have doubles, not for stunts but for close shots with human actors, as he was fussy about his company. Watch the chase scene, which culminates in the jaw-dropping stunt.

— Shari Kizirian © 2014

Originally published on Fandor in July 2014